STORRS – Reminders of John Toner’s influence on the University of Connecticut can still be found on a tour through the campus in Storrs.
Start with Gampel Pavilion, the silver, domed arena that dominates the skyline. Walk from one end of campus to the other, making note of the new buildings and renovations that have been funded, in great part, by basketball’s success at the school. Inside Gampel, look up to the banners that symbolize national championships, Big East titles, and the coaching expertise of Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma.
Imagine, for a second, that none of that has ever existed.
That might be the case if John Toner hadn’t occupied the athletic director’s office from 1969 until 1987.
Toner, 91, a giant figure in the world of intercollegiate athletics for so long, died Tuesday morning at his home in Savannah, Ga. The sadness of that news was felt on campus Monday, especially by those who understand what Toner meant to the university and the athletic department.
His death serves as a reminder of everything he accomplished at UConn, and everything he did for UConn, in his tenure with the Huskies. He not only hired two Hall of Fame coaches in Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun, he also led UConn athletics on the bold transition from the Yankee Conference to the Big East Conference, and oversaw the construction of that on-campus basketball shrine.
If history is written without prejudice, those decisions will always stand as landmarks to UConn’s emergence as a national college sports power. As a result, it is more than fair to ask where UConn, especially UConn athletics, would be today without John Toner.
“I think he had a far-reaching effect on athletics in the Big East, in women’s sports, and nationally in all sports,” Calhoun said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He was a trendsetter. [Big East founder and commissioner] Dave Gavitt always called him his conscience – Dave’s conscience for the Big East.
“He was a very moral man with strict principles. The greatest thing about him, that anybody could say, is that he accomplished a lot in his lifetime to help so many student-athletes. That’s who he was.”
Calhoun said Toner “changed the face of the university and the way the school viewed athletics.” Calhoun also said he would be forever indebted to Toner for hiring him as men’s basketball coach in 1986, which was 20 years after Toner became UConn’s 21st head coach in football. Toner became athletic director in 1969 and resigned as football coach the next year to concentrate on his AD duties.
His hiring of Auriemma and women’s basketball coach in 1985 and Calhoun one year later paved the path to a combined 12 NCAA national championships in basketball.
“Obviously this is a really sad day for the college community, the University of Connecticut and me personally,” Auriemma said in a statement released by UConn. “I owe a debt of gratitude to John that can never be repaid. We become friends. I looked up to him and admired him and he’ll always have a special place in my heart and in my family’s heart. Everyone at the University of Connecticut, in the state of Connecticut and every single person in amateur sports owes him a debt of gratitude.”
Toner’s bold decision to become one of the founding fathers of the Big East Conference eventually forced UConn to change the way it viewed athletics. He faced a three-day deadline from Gavitt. It took much, much longer for the school to adjust.
He served as president of the NCAA from 1983 to 1985. He had served on the NCAA Council in 1977. He chaired various NCAA committees and after stepping down as president he was chairman of the NCAA Committee for the Development of a National Drug Testing Policy. Through his vision, UConn started adding women’s varsity sports in 1974. And his 1978 speech at the NCAA Convention was a driving force behind the NCAA adding women’s varsity programs to its organization in 1981.
“The growth of women’s sports in this country can be directly related to the work that John Toner did to help push forward the Title IX bill,” Auriemma said in his statement. “So, I just can’t put into words … words at some point lose their factor, their meaning when you’re describing someone who was a giant in the world of amateur sports. My thoughts and prayers are with [Toner’s wife] Claire and the rest of the family.”
Toner was born May 4, 1923 in North Dighton, Mass., and later moved to Nantucket, Mass. He graduated from Boston University despite a 42-month tour with the U.S.Army in European theatre. He came to Connecticut in 1955 as head football coach at New Britain High School and led the program to state championships in 1955 and 1956.
Football and basketball may have been his priority, but Toner believed in a balanced program. UConn’s success in field hockey and women’s soccer paved the way to the domination of women’s basketball under the leadership of Auriemma. That made him different from the rest of the “good old boy network” of athletic directors who had moved up from positions as such as head football coach.
“He always was for the students,” Calhoun said. “He loved kids. The challenge to him was a sense of fairness. . . I’m a John Toner fan. Was he old-fashioned? I don’t know. He had principles, which is sometimes perceived as being old-fashioned.”
Toner never abandoned his football connections – even though UConn was playing I-AA and had not upgraded to its current FBS status. In fact, Toner was largely responsible for divisions known as I-AA, I-AAA, II and III. He received the “Distinguished American Award” from the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame. In 1997, the National Football Foundation honored Toner as the first recipient of the John L. Toner Award, given annually in his name to an athletic director who has demonstrated superior administrative abilities, especially in the area of college football.
But Toner always remained focused on the big picture and how he could enhance the college experience for athletes in every sport.
“We’ve got something very special and very unique in college athletics and all of use need to get involved in the process – because it works,” Toner said after the conclusion of his NCAA presidency.
After another dismal season in basketball, Toner decided in 1986 that Calhoun would replace Dom Perno as head coach. Toner had observed Calhoun coaching Northeastern in the Connecticut Mutual Classic, where his Huskies defeated the host Huskies. One year after hiring Calhoun, Toner was criticized in a Task Force Report on athletics. The report offered the opinion that Toner had devoted too much time to his NCAA presidential duties.In reality, his position had given UConn a national voice that could not be replaced. But that wasn’t important to many and eventually he retired as AD.
“I think he expected to go longer when he hired me,” Calhoun said. “We were only together 14 months. I think he thought that together, we could be the solution to our basketball problems.
“John contributed a great deal. And he was concerned how good things were for student-athletes. I never doubted that he loved the kids. He was under-appreciated locally, yet changed the face of the university. And he was well respected nationally. He was a good man for UConn and a good man for all of college athletics. He lived a very good life and left behind a very good family.”
A private family memorial is being planned, according to UConn.